“Crush on the doc! Crush on the doc!”

Bessie laughed so hard that Jade thought she’d cough up a lung right there, but she went back to sweeping. Jade narrowed her eyes at Peanut.

“Pretty Peanut,” Peanut whispered.

Jade sighed and went to work, fantasizing about her next self-defense session and kicking Dell’s very fine ass. She was halfway there, picturing taking him to the floor and . . . and what? She had lots of options, as he’d taught her.

Kicking.

Hitting.

Jabbing.

But there was something wrong with her brain. It wouldn’t go there. Instead, she imagined dropping him to the mat and . . .

Stripping him. Stretching out over the top of him and . . .

Eating him up like a hot buttered biscuit.

Dammit. Now she was heated up herself and having a hot flash to boot. She fanned the air in front of her face, which didn’t help.

“So . . .” Lilah said at her side, making Jade jump. “What’s got you all hot and bothered?”

Bessie came through with her broom again. “Ask Peanut.”

“Crush on the doc,” Peanut said.

Jade closed her eyes.

“Fascinating,” Lilah said. “That I have to learn from a parrot? You’ve been holding out on me.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. Peanut has no idea what she’s saying.”

“Boner,” Peanut said.

Lilah grinned. “Okay,” she said to Jade. “Start at the beginning and leave nothing out. Tell me what’s up.”

“The temperature, dammit. Too many bodies in here.”

Lilah’s gaze slid across the room to where Dell and Brady had come out from the back. Dell’s gaze tracked directly to Jade.

“Uh-huh,” Lilah said.

“I know what you’re thinking,” Jade whispered. “But stop it. So there’s a little sexual tension in the room between Dell and me, it’s nothing. Nothing. In fact, picturing him as old and flabby right now. Flatulent. And see? I’m cooler already.”

“I was going to suggest turning down the thermostat.”

“Or that,” Jade muttered to Lilah’s laugh.

The next day, Jade got an e-mail attachment from Dell—a spreadsheet to-do list with only one thing on it.

Training session #2 tonight. My house, seven o’clock.

There was a code, too. The key code to his front door, she realized. She wouldn’t have to knock, she could go right in.

Which is why he’d given it to her, of course, so she wouldn’t get there and while standing on his porch waiting to be let in, change her mind.

But she couldn’t just let herself in. Could she? Besides, he’d been gone all day, up north at Melinda’s.

He wasn’t spending the night up there?

She showed up at his house exactly on time and after some hesitation, entered the code and let herself in.

Dell was in his kitchen, staring into his refrigerator, which had not magically filled itself. It’d been a hell of a long day at Melinda’s ranch, and he was dead on his feet.

Normally he spent the night up north. Usually with Melinda. She was smart, funny, and beautiful, and with two ex-husbands, she wasn’t looking for anything more than a good time. No harm, no foul.

But last month he’d had Brady fly him home the same day as well.

He’d repeated the pattern today, marking two full months of dateless Saturday nights for him.

A first.

He heard his front door open and Jade’s footsteps coming through the living room. He knew without looking that she was wearing her Nikes, which she wore only for him. For the rest of the world she wore designer heels or boots.

He liked her stripped down to casual. To what he thought was the real Jade beneath the glamorous veneer. He liked that he alone saw her this way. Not that he could explain to himself why.

“Thought you had a date tonight,” she said, appearing in his doorway.

“My date’s you.” He shut the refrigerator. “I can make you dinner after you finish wiping the mat with me.”

He added her quick smile to the list of things that he liked, though he had no idea if her grin was because he hadn’t stayed at Melinda’s or the idea of wiping the mat with him. He suspected the latter.

The list of things he liked about Jade was very long and growing, he thought as they went downstairs and she pulled off her sweatshirt. He liked how she threw herself into any task with everything she had, including this one—which she wasn’t altogether comfortable with yet. He liked the way her skin glowed. He liked the way she shoved her hair back from her face to stall before getting on the mat, and he really liked the way her ni**les hardened and pressed against her T-shirt.

Yeah, that was his favorite. “Ready?” he asked.

“I was born ready.”

Not for me, though he suddenly wished otherwise. They worked for a half hour before she asked for a water break. As she tipped her head back and drank from a bottle he handed her, his gaze drifted up the length of her body where she was draped over a weight machine trying to catch her breath. Her T-shirt was sticking to her, and it made her look tough, like maybe she could kick some serious butt. It also emphasized her curves, making his mouth water.

Her hair had dared to disobey and was coming out of her fancy twist but he could still see the nape of her neck. The creamy pale skin there was driving him insane. It was the vulnerability of that one little spot, the way a few strands of red silk curled damply to it.

He wanted his mouth there. Of course he was shit out of luck on that particular fantasy, which could get in line behind all the other fantasies he had filed in his brain under Goddess Jade.

“Dell?”

She’d finished her water and was facing him, expression determined.

He was so going down.

And not ten minutes later she went for the slam dunk and he was on his knees on the mat, hands holding his junk, gasping for breath and trying not to throw up.

Yeah, she was not nearly as soft and vulnerable as he’d thought.

“Oh God. Oh God, Dell, I’m sorry! You said jam my knee up and—”

“It’s okay,” he croaked, and slowly fell over. “I’m okay.” Or as okay as he could be with his nuts in his throat. Hell, he wasn’t ready to have children, anyway. He felt her crawl close and put her hand on his lower abs. “Back up, I don’t want to throw up on your pretty Nikes.”

She didn’t back up, she leaned over him, her fingers drifting lower to cover the hand he was using to cup himself. He knew why he was doing it, he was holding on to the goods to make sure they were still there. But she . . . “Jade—”

“Did I hurt it?”

“It” twitched. “No,” Dell said, both to her and to his dick’s unspoken and hopeful question of getting lucky.

“Are you sure? Maybe I should . . . look.”

He opened his eyes and met her worried ones.

“I worked at a medical center for eight years, remember?”

Because he wasn’t ready to move—or let her look, Jesus—he said, “Tell me about the job.”

“I was in charge of . . . everything.”

He choked out a laugh. “So what’s so different from now?”

That earned him a small smile and she wrapped her fingers around his wrist and tried to lift his hand off his groin. Her fingers brushed against him and in spite of the fact that he was still hurting, he got hard. Perfect. “Jade—”

“If you’re bruising up, we need to ice—”

“I’m not bruising.”

She pulled his hand away and stared down at the crotch of his basketball shorts.

He lifted his head and looked, too, the both of them taking in the very obvious bulge between his legs. “I think I’m going to live,” he said wryly.

She swallowed hard and wet her lips.

Groaning, he thunked his head back on the floor. “Not helping.”

Her gaze met his, and that’s when they heard it. The front door slamming shut. And then Adam’s boots on the cellar steps.

Jade leapt to her feet and practically ran for her sweatshirt, which she was just pulling over her head when Adam appeared. Jade sent his brother a weak smile. “He might not be in fighting condition at the moment.”

And then she was gone.

Adam looked at Dell prone on the mat. “She flatten you?”

“Yeah.”

Adam just shook his head. “Food?” Then he went back upstairs, apparently in search of said food.

Dell rolled to his knees, disgusted with himself. Great way to make her feel comfortable and safe. He scrubbed a hand over his face feeling . . . discombobulated. It took him a minute to realize that was because she’d walked. Usually he did the walking. That’s how it always worked. “I guess not this time,” he said to Gertie, who’d lumbered down the stairs to investigate. Gertie snuffled and plopped down at his feet. She might not have a graceful bone in her body, but she wouldn’t walk away. At least not unless someone bribed her with food . . .

Ten

Dell spent Sunday deep in the Bitterroot Mountains with Brady and Adam, working volunteer S&R. Late that night they’d located the lost hiker and flown back to Sunshine.

Brady went home to Lilah. Adam had a class to give.

So Dell was on his own, and he crashed early in his own bed. Not that being exhausted helped him sleep. He woke up several times, the latest at dawn when Gertie leapt on his bed and slobbered on his face.

Her version of the good-morning kiss.

He shoved her off him and got into the shower. At Belle Haven he rode Kiwi, then let himself into the office just as Jade arrived. He’d called her several times since Saturday night, all of which she’d ignored.

Which made sense. He’d invited her over for self-defense training, promising to teach her moves to make her feel safe. And then he’d turned into a fifteen-year-old boy and gotten hard in class. “Jade.”

She had the phone headset on. She raised a finger to indicate she needed a minute. He could see now that she was accessing the center’s messages from their service, typing them into the spreadsheet that she had up on her screen. She was crazy about her spreadsheets. She’d uncovered Peanut, and the parrot was preening and humming to herself. Beans was watching Peanut with avid, narrow-eyed interest.

Gertie had found the sole sunny spot in the room and was already snoring.

Jade’s fingers were a whirl on her keyboard. She worked hard here, and she was his responsibility, as much as any of the animals were. He took that very seriously.

He wanted her to be able to count on him.

Always.

Which meant he needed to work on the self-control. The only thing that kept him coming back to the straight-andnarrow was that clearly she’d been hurt. Some fucker had put his hands on her and terrorized her, and seeing her suffer the aftereffects killed him.

That was not to say that having her sweet, curvy body so intimate with his wasn’t having a toll.

It was.

And that toll had kept him up at night. Hell, last night he’d had to get up at two in the morning to abuse himself in the shower.

He probably should have abused himself again this morning just to cover his bases.

Jade’s fingers were a blur on her keyboard, but then suddenly she stopped and pulled off her headset. “Twenty-five messages today. Must be Monday.”

“Jade, about Saturday night—”

“I never thanked you.”

This derailed him. “What?”

She lifted her head and met his gaze. “For spending so much time with me.”

“Sure, but I wanted to apologize for—”

“Nothing,” she said, shaking her head. “You have nothing to apologize for. It was my fault. I, um, put my hand . . . there, and then it—”

She broke off suddenly, eyes locked on something over his shoulder.

Dell turned around to find Adam standing there, brows up.

“Don’t stop on my account,” Adam said. “It’s just getting good.”

Dell blew out a breath and considered killing him but he had patients arriving. “Go away.” He turned back to Jade, but she was gone, heels churning up the big reception area as she went to the wall of files and began pulling down the day’s scheduled patients.

“So,” Adam said, “she put her hand where?”

Two days later, Jade was sitting in Lilah’s kennels. They were in Lilah’s office, surrounded by Abigail the duck, Lulu the lamb, and several dogs, all snoozing.

It was naptime in Lilah’s world.

Lilah and Jade were munching on deli sandwiches, which Jade had brought over to spend her lunch hour with some female company.

“He’s going to be back any minute,” Lilah was saying as she decimated a pickle, talking about her favorite subject.

Brady, of course.

Dell had been gone all morning with Brady, out on a ranch about a hundred miles east where Brady had flown him, taking care of a difficult high-end breeding mare’s birth.

“It didn’t go well,” Lilah said, patting one of the dogs who lifted its head and sniffed. Twinkles belonged to Brady, but Lilah considered him hers. She handed him a piece of turkey from her sandwich. “In fact, it went awful.”

“What do you mean?” Jade asked.

“They lost the mare. She’d stroked out and Dell had to put her down.”

“Oh no,” Jade breathed.

“The owners were so distraught they couldn’t sit with the horse during the euthanization.”

“They let her die alone?”

“No.” Lilah shook her head and Jade knew. Dell. Dell had stayed with the horse. Jade’s throat ached for him because she knew him. He’d have sat on the straw-covered barn floor with the horse’s head in his lap, stroking her face and talking to her until she closed her eyes for the last time.

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