It was who he was. “Damn.”
Lilah nodded. “Been a long week. How are you doing?”
Jade sipped her iced tea. “Good.”
“Good as in ‘I don’t want to talk about it’ or good as in ‘good.’”
Jade looked at her.
Lilah looked right back, innocent-faced.
Jade had no idea how Lilah could have heard about her kissing Dell. But she planned to play it cool just in case. “Maybe we should save some time and you should just skip to the part where you tell me exactly what you want to know.”
“Okay, well something scared you last week in the parking lot and you’ve been jumpy ever since.”
Not where Jade expected this conversation to go. “Who told you that?”
“Hell, honey, this is Sunshine.”
“And Dell’s been teaching you self-defense, and now you’re talking about going back to Chicago—which you left to come here because, as you told us, you wanted better skiing in the winter. Now I’m thinking that’s not true.” She paused, brows up. “How am I doing so far?”
Jade stared down at her turkey on multigrain. “It’s . . . complicated.”
“Are you okay?”
“I’m working on it.”
“Is there anything I can do?”
Again, Jade’s throat tightened. She’d lied, omitted, kept a good part of herself closed off, and Lilah didn’t care about any of that, all she wanted to know was if Jade was okay. “You’re already doing it.”
Lilah smiled and offered her some chips. “He’s a good man, you know.”
“You know who.”
Yeah. She did.
“A really good man.”
Jade nodded. “I know.”
Jade looked at Lilah.
Lilah smiled sweetly. Expectantly.
And Jade had to laugh. “You’re fishing.”
“Yes,” Lilah admitted without shame. “I’m totally fishing.”
“Why?” Lilah just shook her head. “You know how insatiably nosy we all are. Something’s going on. We just don’t know what, and it’s killing us.”
“Oh, please. If there’s nothing going on with you two, I’ll eat Abigail.”
Abigail the duck lifted her head and looked reproachfully at Lilah.
“Seriously,” Lilah said to Jade while patting Abigail on the head. “There’s no way it’s nothing.”
“Based on what?” Jade asked.
“Based on the fact that whenever you and Dell are in the same room, all these little flames flicker between you.”
“It’s a metaphor,” Lilah said.
Jade stared at her, then laughed.
“And Adam told Brady he interrupted the two of you in Dell’s gym.”
“What, is this high school?”
Lilah grinned. “Well, we’ve all been together that long, so yeah, in emotional years, we’re still in high school. You two doing it or what?”
“Okay, wow.” Jade shook her head. “We are so not going there.”
“Please! Oh, please, let’s go there!”
“I didn’t ask you about your . . . flames when you first started circling Brady,” Jade said.
“Aha!” Lilah jabbed a finger into Jade’s direction, triumphant. “You are! You’re circling Dell.”
Jade sighed. “Okay, maybe I’ll cop to the circling. But that’s no secret. We’ve always circled each other.”
“But something’s different,” Lilah insisted. “I can feel it.”
Was it? All her life Jade had been the master at compartmentalizing the people in her life. She’d put Dell in the slot for boss and left him there for eighteen months. She’d been okay with adding him to the friend slot as well, but that had taken him a good long time to earn.
And he had earned it.
He was a friend, a good one. She knew he’d give her the shirt off his back without a moment’s hesitation. That had made it easier to feel safe in Sunshine, she’d be the first to admit. And she loved Lilah. She loved Adam and the others, too, but Dell . . . From the start he’d been different. Somehow he’d burrowed deeper, gotten past her walls though she couldn’t have said how.
But Lilah was right—something was happening between them. She didn’t know what exactly but whenever he was close, her senses went on high alert and she strained to get even closer. When he touched her, her entire body tingled.
She wanted him.
She, who hadn’t had sex in over a year and a half, wanted the guy who’d probably had sex last weekend.
It made no sense but in her mind he was changing, becoming something other than just her boss and her friend, something that was both safer and far less safe at the same time.
“Maybe you two can fall in love and get married, like me and Brady.”
“Lilah. You know I’m going back to Chicago.”
“So? We have the chopper. You’ll commute.”
Jade stood. “Would you look at the time? I’ve got to get back to work now.”
“Oh, come on, just give me a hint.”
“You want a hint?”
“Abigail just pooped on your shoe.”
Lilah was still swearing when Jade made her escape.
The next night, Jade let herself into Dell’s house again. He’d left her an e-mail about another training session and she’d dropped everything to be here.
Everything being season one of My So-Called Life on DVD . . .
She found him in the gym, already stripped down to black basketball shorts and a black T-shirt, and she stared at him because he didn’t look like her boss. Or her friend.
He looked . . . hot.
He turned and their eyes met. Yearning flowed through her, yearning for a man. This man. She felt silly for staring, but he was staring, too.
“I’m wearing a cup,” he said, and she laughed. Tension broken, as she knew he’d intended.
But she still wanted him.
For two hours he reviewed joint manipulation and using an attacker’s own weight and momentum to bring him down. It was fascinating but involved close hand-to-hand contact.
In short, he was all over her, his hands on her body, maneuvering her into place and positions as he worked her hard, harder than she’d thought he would.
Finally she flopped to the mat flat on her back, gasping for air and sweating. “I can’t feel my legs.”
He crouched at her side, not breathing hard at all, the bastard.
“The least you can do,” she said, between gasps, “is pretend to be winded.”
“There’s no pretending between us, tough girl. If you want to be as good as me, you have to work for it.”
She laughed. “Conceited much?”
“No. Just good. Thanks to Brady.”
“Did he beat you up until you cried, too?”
“More than once. But you’re not crying. Get up. One more time.”
She wanted to whimper and curl into a ball. Instead she rolled to her feet.
“I’m going to come after you, right at you,” he said, warning her but not babying her. “You know what to do.”
She inhaled, accessed all the knowledge he’d given her, and let her brain select one of the judo moves he’d taught her. It was a lot like taking on a charging bull, but she managed to catch him when his weight shifted off his leading foot.
His momentum should have taken him down hard, but he was still better than her, and at the last second he brought her with him.
She landed on her back, with him on top. He lay along the entire length of her, his hands holding her wrists to the mat. Lifting his head, he looked down at her. The raw intensity of his dark gaze spoke to the woman inside of her. The sound of his deep voice was like a caress of warmth against her chilled skin. “Your move,” he said.
Thanks to his careful tutoring, she did have moves. She could pick one and be efficient because she wasn’t panicked.
Nope. She was something else entirely.
But he was braced, ready for her, and aroused as hell or not, she intended to win today. Hell, every time. So she picked an option that she knew he didn’t expect. Using her newfound confidence, she looked into his dark eyes and let all the yearning and heat that had been gathering for months now show in her eyes.
He immediately relaxed, his own eyes softening. “Jade.”
It was inevitable, really. They’d been in close quarters, touching and grappling and grabbing. Sweating. It didn’t get more personal than that, and another man might have taken advantage of it.
But he’d been careful not to. And he didn’t now, either. She waited until he rose lithely to his feet and reached down to pull her to hers. She gripped his hand hard with hers . . . and fell back, into a roll.
Surprised, Dell followed her completely over, and while he was still in motion, she dropped on him and set her elbow to his windpipe.
There was a long beat of silence and then Dell laughed. Jade was still enjoying the sound of that laugh when he abruptly switched their positions, rolling on top of her, once again pinned her down, his face hovering an inch from hers. “Who taught you to fight dirty?”
He laughed again, kissed her on the tip of her nose and sprang up gracefully in one smooth motion, pulling her with him. “Just remember that all fights are dirty.” He tossed her a bottle of water and grabbed one for himself. “You did great tonight.”
“Yeah?” His praise washed through her, warming her from the inside out.
“Oh, yeah.” His eyes met and held hers. “I think you’re amazing, Jade.”
She started to look away but found she couldn’t.
“Amazing,” he repeated softly, simply, as he moved closer. “Strong as hell. Smart. Brave. Resilient.”
She opened her mouth to thank him, but her throat was too tight to speak. Once upon a time her family’s approval had meant everything to her, but though they’d always meant well, she’d arrived in Sunshine with no sense of self.
Over the last year and a half she’d started to find herself. The real Jade, and that real Jade wanted to be those very things that Dell had just said: strong, smart, brave, resilient. He didn’t use empty platitudes or pretty words, ever. He didn’t have to. So when he said something, he meant them.
And damned if she didn’t like looking at herself the way he saw her. Damned if she didn’t want to be that woman. No, he hadn’t taken advantage of their closeness. So she would. “Dell?”
She tossed her water aside and put her hands on his chest, running them northbound, winding her arms around his neck.
He went stock-still. Well, except for closing his eyes and a sexy muscle in his jaw that bunched tight. “Jade—”
“Shh,” she said, watching his lips quirk as she animal-whispered him for a change. “Just stay calm, Dell. And keep breathing. This won’t hurt, I promise.”
He let out a rough exhale that turned into a groan when she brushed her lips against his, once.
His eyes opened, dark and intense.
One big hand ran down her spine to rest at the small of her back; the other gripped her hip. They were inches apart from each other, sharing air.
One inch one way, Jade thought. One more inch would change everything.
She gave a brief thought to stepping back, but it was too late.
Far too late.
So she closed the gap, absorbing the heat of him and the fact that he was so big. And hard.
She let out a little hum of pleasure at that as she slid her fingers into his hair and drew his mouth back to hers.
Dell was lost in the kiss before Jade tightened her grip on him and made a soft, sexy whimper, but when her tongue touched his, desire exploded as the kiss deepened into a hot, intense connection that blew the circuits in his brain.
She moaned and melted into his body, her fingers tightening painfully in his hair. Hell, she could make him bald if she wanted, he didn’t care, just as long as she kept on kissing him just . . . like . . . that . . . God.
“I know.” He dipped his head and dragged his mouth down her throat, one hand fitting low on her back, the other sliding down her leg, lifting it to his hip so he could grind against her. The insanity continued when she clutched at him and arched closer, as if she couldn’t get enough. Her hands where everywhere, running her fingers through his hair, stroking them down his neck, giving him a shiver all the way to his toes. Then she worked her way beneath his damp T-shirt and dug into the muscles there. He was already granite hard when she rocked herself against him. This was because he had no blood left in his head. He sucked in a breath and once again took her mouth with his.
Like a match on dry timber.
Her arms wound around his neck as she went up on tiptoe, molding her body to his. Yeah, God yeah. Her lips immediately parted and her tongue slid to his, hot and wet, and he groaned into her mouth as he stroked up her ribs, his thumbs lightly brushing the underside of her breasts.
Making a low purring noise, she tried to climb up his body. “Dell—”
His answer was to press her up against the wall, dragging his mouth down her throat to taste the pulse racing at the base of her neck.