And then she forgot to think at all.

His hair was damp, and he was rubbing a towel over his face, breathing hard, looking like he’d been enjoying whatever he’d been doing. “You came,” he said.

He’d thought she wouldn’t. She did her best to roll her tongue back into her mouth. “You look busy.”

“Nope. Just kicking Adam’s ass.”

Dressed similarly, Adam came into view behind him and snorted. “Not even on a good day, man. Though I’ll give it to you that you’re better these days.” He nodded to Jade. “You should have seen us when we were kids. He was so uncoordinated, he couldn’t walk across a room without falling over his own scrawny legs. At least he outgrew his glasses. Christ, was he ugly. It took him years to grow into his current look.”

“Hey,” Dell said. “You do realize you look just like me.”

“No, you look like me.”

Jade followed them both into the kitchen, marveling at how they seemed to take perverse pleasure in making fun of each other’s vulnerabilities at every turn. And yet the connection between them was unmistakable.

She shrugged it off to the mystery of the male psyche, watching as Dell grabbed two bottles of water, tossed one at Adam, then downed his in long, greedy gulps while Jade stood there looking at two of the finest male specimens she’d ever seen.

Adam tossed his empty bottle into a recycling bin and nodded to Dell. “Be sure to thank Jade for saving your hide. Five more minutes and I’d have been wiping the floor with you.”

Dell grinned. “Whatever you have to tell yourself to sleep at night.”

Adam shook his head, like he couldn’t believe how lame his own brother was. Moving to the door, he slowed in front of Jade and lightly tugged on a strand of her hair. “I’m better than he is,” he said with a head jerk in Dell’s direction. “When you’re done pounding him into the mat, I’ll be happy to step in.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Dell shoved him out, then turned to Jade. “Want something to drink first?”

“Only if you think a tequila shot before learning how to kick ass is a good idea.”

He smiled. “You’re nervous.”

That was putting it mildly. She’d been thinking about this for two days now, in between fielding calls from everyone in town about her supposed engagement to Dell. Knowing that if she was getting cornered, he had to be getting it way worse, she’d called Leanne and told her that the engagement was off.

Now the story running through town was that Dell had dumped Jade because he was a tragic alpha hero, wounded and terrified of love.

Dell had laughed it off, assuring her he couldn’t give a shit what people made up about them. And she knew he was being honest—he definitely didn’t worry about what others thought. He was classic alpha that way.

But she’d wondered . . . how much of the whispers were really made up? He’d been very careful in his life in regard to the chosen few whom he trusted. She hadn’t worked for him for eighteen months and not understood that much of that easygoing and laid-back nature was only skin-deep, that no matter what he showed the general public he was actually intensely private and quite closed off.

She figured the mock engagement, and then the supposed cancellation of said engagement—leaving him “wounded” and needing some alone time—worked for him.

“Come on,” he said, leading her down a set of stairs to a basement. “We’d better start before you change your mind and run out on me.”

She was already beginning to sweat. “I don’t run.” Liar, liar. “But I could use that tequila shot now.”

“Be good,” he said, “and I’ll get you something after. Sol used to serve us tea when he was kicking our butts.”

“Tea’s only good if it comes with cookies.”

He laughed. “Tea’s good never.”

“Sounds like Sol was a sweet man.”

“He was two hundred and fifty pounds, and six feet four inches of solid muscle. He was also ex-marine, and didn’t know a smile from his own ass. He wasn’t sweet, but he was . . . everything else. At least to us.”

The basement was completely finished and had been turned into a gym. Equipment was lined on one wall, a treadmill, elliptical trainer, a selection of machines with a large maximum-load capacity, and free weights were in front of a bank of mirrors. Along one side, across from the riders, was a large padded mat area, as well as a huge flat-screen TV and entertainment center mounted on a wall. Music was blasting out of it. “The man cave,” she said. Feeling a little intimidated, she pulled off her sweatshirt. She hadn’t been sure what to wear but had settled on yoga pants and a tank top.

Dell aimed the remote at the entertainment system and the music cut. He tossed the remote aside and took her to the mats in front of the mirrors. “Anyone can learn this, I promise.”

She nodded, hoping that was true. “Like you learned it.”

“There’s something about getting your ass handed to you daily that motivates you.”

She looked around, curious. “How many women have you brought down here to . . . help train?”

She expected him to laugh, or at least give off a wicked smile, but he slowly shook his head, his warm brown eyes even on hers. “None.”

“Come on. The way you date?”

“I’ve never brought a woman to my house.”

“Ever?”

“Ever. And you’re stalling. Step onto the mat.”

She touched it with her toe. “Usually a guy buys me dinner first.”

He held out his hand for hers, eyes steady. Calm. “Come on now, tough girl,” he said in the same tone she’d heard him use on a wild stallion just before horse-whispering the thing into a puddle of goo.

She wasn’t a puddle of goo yet, but she followed his soft command and reached for his hand. “Where do we start?” Her voice didn’t sound as confident as she’d have liked. Being in Dell’s very nice arms to be kissed was one thing. And a very nice thing. Being there to try to escape wasn’t nearly so nice. It was claustrophobic and terrifying. He was big, bigger than either of the two men who’d held her that long ago night.

“Let’s finish teaching you how to break out of a hold from behind,” he said, going directly to the source of her anxiety without passing Go.

She nodded and he moved behind her, and this time when his arms came around her, she was prepared.

Or so she told herself.

But he was built like a wall of granite, and her breath hitched. “I know,” he said. “But remember. Let the adrenaline work in your favor.” His voice was low and steady, and she nodded.

But this hold was different. He had one forearm banded tight around her waist like before, but the other was at her throat and she didn’t have the mobility to get him with a head butt.

Plus there was the added rush of it being Dell, not a bad guy. Dell, with his familiar scent and voice . . . and confusing emotions, battered her.

Fear.

Excitement.

Panic.

Arousal.

“Turn your chin toward my elbow,” he said. “Force it down to relieve the pressure against the side of your neck so that you don’t go unconscious if the pressure increases. Then you stomp the shit out of his insole with your heel. If you can, reach over your shoulder and poke out his eyes. Or, if your arms are pinned too low, like I’ve got you now, grab and twist his nuts.”

“What?”

“Trust me, that’s the most effective tool in your arsenal. He’ll drop like a stone.”

“Have you thought about any possible future children you’re risking?”

“Well, maybe you could skip the twist part.” He tightened his grip, signaling that he wasn’t going to let her slip into brevity. “You want to make it so that they can’t see, can’t breathe, and hopefully can’t run after you.”

“Dell.” She gripped his forearm, the one over her throat, her legs trembling.

“I’ve got you, Jade. I promise. Nothing bad is going to happen to you here. Ever.”

“I’m sorry. I don’t know why I’m shaking.”

“Don’t be sorry. You know I’ll stop if that’s what you want.”

She closed her eyes and tried to collect herself.

“Jade?”

“No. Don’t stop.” She drew a deep breath. “Do you really want me to stomp on your foot and attempt to poke your eyes out?”

“Yes.”

She closed her eyes again, drew in yet another bolstering breath, and stomped the shit out of his foot. When his arms fell away from her, she whirled and took a step back.

But he didn’t drop like a stone. He came at her and grabbed her again, from the front this time. Suddenly she was up against him in a tight embrace, her chest, belly and thighs pressed to his. Completely overwhelmed, she gasped.

“Backing away was good,” he said. “But you stopped. Never stop. Because once you do, you have to be prepared to fight, in which case you need to be either two arm lengths away from him—outside of his kicking range—or all the way in tight against him. Anything in between is leaving yourself too open. If you can, run. Fucking run for the hills and scream for help while you’re at it. You okay?”

She nodded, all she could manage.

“Good,” he said. “Couple of ways to get out of this. A knee to the groin works. Move fast and hard. Follow it up with a kick to the guy’s knee or lower abs if you can reach them. Kick straight ahead using the bottom of your foot like you’d kick in a door. If he somehow manages to come at you again, use your elbow and smash him in the face, throat, or neck. Then back to your standby option—run like hell.”

She was doing her best to stand there flat up against him and be casual, but she was so incredibly aware of every inch of him that she couldn’t find an ounce of casual. “Dell,” she whispered, and dropped her head to his chest.

“Okay, it’s okay,” he said, mistaking her distress. His warm exhale tickled her ear as his arms loosened. “Breathe, Jade. Then think. What’s your first move?”

She breathed as ordered, then came up with her knee.

He deflected enough that she grazed his thigh, but he still went down to his knees.

It worked. Holy shit, it really worked. Shocked, she covered her mouth and stared down at him.

As he had earlier, he lifted his head and flashed her a grin. “Nice. Except you forgot to scream and run like hell.”

Before she could move, he’d grabbed her and tugged her down to the mat, pinning her beneath him. Taking her hands in his, he yanked them over her head and peered into her eyes. “First,” he said. “Remember. It’s just me. Second . . .”

She came up with her knee.

“Yes!” he said, deftly rolling aside and coming up on an elbow with another dazzling smile, by which time she’d run across the room, away from him. “See? You’re a natural.”

He spent the next two hours putting her through the paces. And that night, she slept like the living dead, with only the weight of Beans on her chest instead of the usual ball of anxiety.

By the end of the next day, they’d seen forty patients, among them seven-week-old Rhodesian ridgeback puppies, a four-year-old shih tzu with colitis, a basset hound with OCD, and a bunny who had nothing wrong with him other than he was owned by Mrs. Wycoff, who was old and very lonely.

Dell healed them all with equal ease.

Oh, to wield that power, Jade thought. Good thing he had no idea exactly how much power he had. She began to close up. “Peanut want a cracker?” she asked the parrot.

She’d been trying to teach Peanut to say the sentence “Peanut want a cracker” to distract the parrot from saying “boner” at inopportune times. But Peanut was pretending to be mute today.

Jade was just about ready to switch to the phone service for the night when the phone rang, so she grabbed it.

“Hello, Jade. It’s Melinda. Is Dell in?”

Melinda ran a thirty-thousand-acre ranch up north. It was one of the ranching accounts Dell had added now that Brady had fixed up their Bell 47 chopper to fly to farther locations. Dell went to Melinda’s ranch one Saturday a month, where he tended to her animals’ care.

And, according to the rumor mill, he attended to Melinda’s care as well.

Dell was in his office with Brady, and his office phone line was lit. “He’s on the other line,” Jade said.

“No problem, I’ll call him on his cell later tonight. Let him know I’m ready for him tomorrow.”

“Sure.” And if Melinda could say “ready” with more sex in her voice, that would be just freaking fantastic. “Will do.” Jade forced herself to hang up calmly. “I’m ready for him tomorrow,” she mocked in a sex kitten voice.

“Ah. Melinda.”

Jade nearly fell out of her chair and Bessie the cleaning lady cackled good and hard over that. “She does seem to have her hooks out for him, doesn’t she?”

“I . . . I didn’t notice.”

Bessie cackled again. “And I hardly noticed that lovely shade of green on you, dear.”

“I’m not jealous.”

“Of course not.” Bessie looked pointedly at the message Jade had written and crumpled. “Don’t worry. Your secret crush on the doc is safe with me.”

“Crush on the doc,” Peanut said.

Jade glared at the parrot. “What?”

“Boner.”

Jade stood up and pointed at her. “You can’t say ‘Peanut wants a cracker,’ but you can say ‘crush on the doc’ and ‘boner’ ? Are you kidding me?”

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