Her mother gave a long-suffering sigh. “Okay, but new bedding and towels. I’m going to insist, Jade. It’ll be a welcome-home present.”

“I know you’re trying to help,” Jade murmured, her head thunking back on the wall when Dell’s thumbs rasped back and forth over her nipples. “But . . .”

But she’d lost track of the conversation since only half of her was half paying attention; the other half was now quivering with anticipation of where Dell’s mouth and hands would go next. “I don’t need a welcome-home present.” She felt Dell’s reaction to that in the slight tensing of his muscles. “I’ve got to go, Mom,” she said, and slid the phone back into her pocket. “And that’s why I don’t answer my cell when I’m on the job,” she said, trying for glib.

He didn’t play. In fact, his face was carefully cleared of all emotion. “You wanted to go over something with me,” he said.

It took her a moment to change gears—he was much better at it than she was. “I got the files off your laptop.” She handed over the computer. “And while I was there, some other files popped out at me. Services you’ve provided but not charged for.”

His gaze flickered, but he said nothing as he took the laptop.

“Do you need help with the accounting?” she asked as Adam came into the back.

“There is no bookkeeping for these accounts,” Dell said.

“Pro bono work?” Jade asked.

Dell flicked a glance at his brother, then back to Jade. “Yes. I go out to the Tall Rocks area once a month and give a clinic for the people out there who can’t afford vet care for their pets.”

“On the Indian reservation there?”

He looked surprised that she knew. “No, just off the reservation.”

“If you put it on your books, it’s a write-off.”

“I don’t want the write-off,” he said.

“But—”

“No,” he said, and walked away.

“Confused?” Adam asked her.

“Yes.”

Adam nodded. “It’s because you asked him the wrong question.”

“What’s the right question?”

“Why does he do it?”

Jade looked into the dark eyes so like Dell’s. “Okay, why does he do it?”

“Because no matter what he wants us all to believe, he cares for people as much as he cares about animals. It’s a pack leader thing. He won’t let himself turn his back on anyone in his pack, like it or not.”

“But why can’t he take the write-off?”

“Not can’t. Won’t.”

“Why?”

“Now that’s a far more complicated question,” Adam said.

After what had happened against the x-ray machine, and what hadn’t happened, Dell made himself scarce the next day. Not hard to do with the schedule they had all morning, which had been double booked because he spent the afternoon out west making ranch rounds. From there he was called to an emergency at Melinda’s, which Brady flew him to. When Jade had locked up for the day, it was Adam to walk her out to her car, standing there big and protective, making sure she got off okay. “You have a training session tonight,” Adam reminded her.

“Still?” Jade asked. “But isn’t Dell—”

“Still.”

She went home first and changed. “Men are stupid,” she said to Beans.

“Mew.”

She sighed. What had she expected? That Dell would stop being Dell?

That they were in a relationship?

Of course they weren’t in a relationship. She’d made it perfectly clear that she was leaving, and he didn’t do relationships, anyway.

Which disturbed her more than it should. But regardless, she drove to his house for her scheduled self-defense session. She walked up to his door and stared at the keypad in indecision. She ran a hand over her clothes. Tucked a strand of hair in place.

Chewed on her lower lip.

She was nervous, which she hadn’t been since their first session. But things were different now. They’d slept together for one thing. Before, using the key code to let herself into his house had been . . . a friend move, not a lover move. God, no. He’d never even had a lover here to his house.

And now . . . now she wasn’t sure what they were.

The door opened unexpectedly, and she hurriedly pasted a smile on her face.

It was Adam. He stood back and let her in.

“Oh,” she said in surprise. “Where’s Dell?”

“I’m your stand-in tonight.”

She ignored the ping of loss. “You should have told me. You don’t have to—”

“Want to,” he said. “And don’t worry. I’m better than he is.”

She smiled, thinking this would be far easier with Adam than Dell, but her nerves only increased as they moved down to the gym.

After her attack, she hadn’t wanted to be touched. Dell had broken through that barrier, but that was Dell.

Adam was . . . not Dell.

Okay, so it didn’t make any sense, but all she knew was that her feet didn’t want to take her to the mats.

Adam stood stretching while she made a big production out of setting down her purse and removing her sweatshirt.

And then another long production of making sure her shoes were both tied tight.

And then double-tied.

One could never be too careful . . .

“Jade.” Adam’s voice was always low and measured. He never wasted a single word. If Dell was the laid-back, easygoing one of the family, Adam was his virtual opposite. Quiet. Guarded. Stoic. His version of the Connelly Self-Protection Plan.

She sighed. “Yeah?”

Looking at her with steady patience, he gestured to the mat.

She walked onto it.

“You look like you’re going to the guillotine,” he said, sounding a little amused.

“No, really. I’m fine. Really.”

“That was one too many reallys.”

She grimaced and he shook his head. “How about we work on something not physical?”

She let out the breath she hadn’t realized she was holding. “Like?”

“Weapons.”

She laughed, the tension loosening a little. “Weapons aren’t physical?”

“Not like hand to hand is, no. If you have a weapon, you’re far less likely to ever be a victim.”

“I’m not comfortable carrying a weapon,” she told him.

“You don’t have to. You can have something that can be used as a weapon, something easily and quickly accessible. Get your purse.”

She grabbed it and hugged it to her chest.

He gave a little smile. “Don’t worry, I have no desire to ever comb the mysterious depths of a woman’s purse. Pull something out from there quick, just the first thing your fingers grab.”

She pulled out a compact-sized can of hair spray.

“Perfect. If someone surprises you in a parking lot—”

She winced, and he continued on, more gently now. “If someone does, you’ll spray him directly in the face. Best if you can get it right in his eyes.”

She’d actually done that to herself once by accident and it had hurt like a bitch. But . . . that long ago night, she’d had her purse and the spray wouldn’t have helped her. “If he’s got a gun,” she said softly with a remembered shiver.

“Then you bide your time to make your move. It’s actually hard for an attacker to keep track of everything; the job, the gun, the hostage. When he takes his eyes off you for even one second, you smash the heel of the can into his nose, throat, or against his temple. Whatever’s exposed. If you’re already down on the ground, go for his foot or kneecap. Groin, if you can reach. Hit hard and don’t hesitate. Women hesitate.”

She nodded. “No hesitating. Got it.”

“Now grab something else out of your purse.”

“You don’t want to test me with the can?” she asked, surprised. “Dell always makes me try everything on him.”

He shook his head and muttered something beneath his breath about his brother being both a softie and a sucker. “Hell no, I don’t want to test your smashing me in the face with that can. I’ve seen you beating up the copier. I know what you can do. Pull something else out of your purse.”

She stuck her hand back in and this time latched onto a pen. She shrugged in apology.

“No, that’s good,” he said. “It’s pointy.”

She stared at the pen. “Yeah. So?”

“So all you have to do is remember that pointy things are more effective on something soft. Like the throat, the eyes, abs, groin.”

She felt a little sick at the thought of using the pen on a man. “You guys sure are obsessed with your . . . groin area.”

“No doubt,” he said, sounding amused again. “But you have to be careful. If you use something like a pen to strike at a hard point—a kneecap, for example—chances are that your weapon of choice will just bounce off without doing any real damage, and then you’ll have just pissed him off. That won’t be good.”

When the moment had come for her, she hadn’t done anything to protect herself. She’d been too scared, and that was her secret shame—she’d let herself be a victim.

Adam’s expression softened. “Just remember, something hard like the can goes to bone, pointy goes to soft tissue. It’s really as simple as that, Jade. The next time you’re walking from point A to point B, just make sure you’re holding your keys or a pen or a can of hair spray. Hell, it can be a f**king can of vegetables, it doesn’t matter. As long as you’re thinking ahead, staying calm, keeping your head up and being vigilant, you’ll never be a helpless victim again.”

At the again her head came up, but he was moving away, toward the refrigerator to get them each a bottle of water. Grateful he wasn’t going to push or ask, she let him talk her into giving the mats a try. They went over some of the other techniques that Dell had been working on with her, but they cut it short because her shoelaces were bothering her.

Aka she wasn’t ready to wrestle with anyone other than Dell. Rather than face that, she made an excuse about being tired, and Adam walked her out to her car.

“So,” she said, casually as she could, “where’s Dell tonight? Still at Melinda’s ranch?” Because everyone knew what Melinda and Dell did after a long day on the ranch, and it didn’t involve work.

Hypocrite, she told herself. He and I have the same relationship. Or they had, for one night . . .

Adam shook his head.

“Is that no, you don’t want to tell me?” she asked. “Or no, you don’t know?”

He actually gave her a rare smile. “You’re too smart for him, you know that?”

“He’s on a date,” she said flatly, not willing to be distracted, even if he had a pretty great smile.

“Listen, I’m not sure what happened between you two, but—”

“I reminded him that I’m leaving soon,” she said.

“Ah,” Adam said, nodding. “Well, that’ll do it.”

“Do what?”

“You’re leaving,” he said, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. “Dell doesn’t ‘do’ leaving. At least not anymore. He leaves first. Always.”

Fifteen

Dell was already back in Sunshine, a hundred miles away from Melinda’s ranch. At the bakery, to be exact, eating a half-dozen donuts, because for the third time in a row he hadn’t stayed for a date with Melinda.

Although he should make a date—with a shrink.

He wondered what Adam was teaching Jade right this very minute. And if she was wearing that look of intense concentration she got when he was showing her a new move, the one that said she was earnest and serious and focused on kicking ass.

God, he loved that expression.

Adam appeared at his side and plopped into the other chair at Dell’s little table. “You’re an idiot.”

“Aw, thanks.”

Adam reached out and snatched an old-fashioned glazed donut.

“Hey.”

Taking a huge bite out of it, Adam leaned back. “Don’t you want to know what makes you a f**king idiot?”

“No.”

“It didn’t go so well with Jade tonight.”

Dell straightened. “What do you mean? What happened?”

“She was nervous about tangling with me on the mat.”

“She tell you that?”

“No, she told me that she was exhausted, so we had to stop.”

Dell blew out a breath. “I don’t get it, she’s been doing so well.”

“Yes, and this is where the f**king idiot part comes in. She’s good with you touching her. She feels safe with you. What the hell is going on with you two?”

“Nothing. She’s leaving.”

“Yeah,” Adam said. “I got that. But she’s not gone yet. You’re just backing out of her life?”

“What part of leaving don’t you understand?” Dell asked.

“If it were me, I’d take every last second I had.”

“Yes, well, I always was smarter than you.”

“Come on,” Adam said, shaking head. “If this were any other woman, you wouldn’t give a shit that she was leaving. It wouldn’t matter.”

“We work together.”

Adam waved this away as inconsequential. “You know what my point is.”

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