“Not really.” But Dell did. Christ, he did.
“You going to tell her how you feel about her before she goes, or are you going to be a total pu**y about it?”
“Telling Jade that his feelings for her had changed, deepened, felt like the dumbest of all the dumbass moves he’d ever made. He didn’t want Jade to consider him as her...
Christ. “I have to go.”
“What does that mean?”
“You’re so smart,” Adam said, stealing the very last donut as he rose. “You figure it out.”
Jade went to the animal center instead of home. She’d been running some accounting reports and wanted to check on them.
Or . . . she wanted to keep herself busy.
She decoded the alarm, flipped on the lights, and sat at her desk, immediately losing herself in the comfort and stability of accounting. Accounting didn’t require much. The numbers either added up or they didn’t, and the predictability of the work was soothing all in itself.
After an hour, she got thirsty and headed into the staff room for a bottle of water. She stepped into the room and as her hand reached out to flip the light switch on the wall, she heard it.
A loud exhale.
Panic. Her hand flailed and instead of getting the light switch, she hit the counter. Her fingers wrapped around something and without thinking, she held it out in front of her as a weapon just as a large shadow surged upright at the table in front of her.
“Holy shit,” she gasped.
“Holy shit,” someone else gasped, and then there was a beam of light that blinded her.
Jade stepped backward, out of the room, then whirled and ran down the hall to the front desk, where she groped for the panic button, which she hit five hundred times in a row.
She was still hitting the button as she looked up. Keith stood in the doorway wearing nothing but his long hair standing straight up on one side and a pair of Big Dog flannel boxers that said BLOW THIS down the fly. She was so shocked, she just stood there, her finger still on the button.
“Dude,” Keith said, scrubbing his hands over his face. “You scared the shit out of me.”
Knees wobbling, Jade sank to her chair. “What are you doing here?”
“My roommate got lucky tonight and he made me leave so he could have the place to himself.”
“So you were sleeping here?”
He gave her a reproachful look. “Was sleeping. Jesus, you are one noisy chick. What were you going to do with that?”
Jade looked down and realized that she was gripping a plastic fork. It’d been what she’d grabbed off the counter. “I . . . I think I was going to stab you with it.”
“Dude.” He scratched his chest. “Gotta piss.” He vanished in the back.
The front door crashed open and Dell burst in. Jade stared at him. He stared right back, concern and anger and fear all over his face as he came to her. “Jade.” He sounded horrified as he reached her, hauling her up out of her chair and wrapping his arms around her tight. “You hit the alarm? What happened, are you hurt?”
There was a scuffle of feet in the doorway to the back rooms, and in the same instant Dell whipped Jade behind him. There was a gun in his hand.
Keith was in the doorway again, still in his BLOW THIS boxers, holding an opened soda. His eyes went wide at the sight of Dell standing there, gun drawn. “Holy shit,” he said in a repeat of what he’d said to Jade, jerking, spilling his soda down his bare chest. “Am I dreaming?”
“I came into work because I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep,” Jade started.
“Unlike some of us,” Keith muttered.
“And I came in on Keith sleeping in the back room, but before I realized it was him, I’d hit the alarm. I’m sorry, Dell.”
He swore and tucked the gun into his jeans waistband at the small of his back. Then turned and hugged Jade in close. “Don’t be sorry. You did the right thing.”
“It’s my fault,” she whispered, pressing her face into his chest. His bare chest because he was in jeans and an unzipped sweatshirt with nothing beneath it. His athletic shoes were unlaced and he didn’t appear to be wearing socks.
He’d been in bed.
Beneath her cheek she could feel his heart pounding hard and fast. She’d wondered what it would take to ruffle the unflappable Dr. Dell Connelly.
She’d found it.
Her safety. “You have a gun?”
“I get notified at the same time as the police when the alarm goes off. I saw your car in the lot. I thought—”
He’d thought she was in danger.
Still holding her against him, Dell reached into his pocket. “Need to call this in and tell them it’s a false alarm—”
Before he could finish that sentence, several squad cars came flying into the lot, lights flashing.
“Dude,” Keith said on a sigh.
The next morning, Jade was at her desk staring down at the newspaper. There were two stories of interest. The first one was front page. The guys robbing the vet clinics in the state had been caught in Boise when they’d tried to hit a twenty-four-hour emergency pet hospital. No one had been injured.
The other story was on page three.
Dr. Dell Connelly’s ex-fiancée and receptionist at Belle Haven catches their animal tech Keith Roberts In the Act. Of Sleeping.
Sighing, Jade tossed the paper aside. The police had been quite understanding of the mishap. Keith got over himself. Dell swore he wasn’t upset with her, but something had happened.
He’d pulled back. She didn’t know why.
After morning rounds, he’d gone into surgery and Jade spent the time reorganizing files and updating inventory. Dell was gone for a few hours, seeing pets at a vet hospital about an hour away. When he called her from there about some records he needed, he sounded perfectly pleasant.
And perfectly not himself.
“Dell,” she said after she’d told him where to find the records. “Are you okay?”
“Of course,” he said, then paused. “And you?”
An odd longing filled her. A longing for him, which was unsettling. She wanted . . . well, she didn’t exactly know.
And wasn’t that the problem.
“I’m peachy,” she said, and when he’d hung up she smacked herself in the forehead with her phone, castigating herself aloud. “Peachy? You’re peachy?”
“I think pineapple works better,” Adam said, walking through the reception area. “It’s prickly.” He flashed her a quick grin, making her laugh and shake her head.
“You on for tonight?” he asked.
Tonight was poker night. Dell, Brady, Adam, and Lilah were religious about the twice-monthly get-togethers. Dell hosted them at his place and these guys took their poker very seriously. “Yes,” she said. “I’ll be there.”
“Bring your cash and valuables,” he said.
Two weeks ago Jade had cleaned Adam out. He wanted his revenge. “There’s going to be an ass-whooping tonight.”
“Hmm,” she said. “I’ll bring my can of hair spray, too, in case it gets ugly.”
He reached into the candy jar on the counter that Jade used to bribe little children into behaving. “You can’t scare me like you do Dell.”
She went still. “Is that what I do, scare him?”
Adam flashed her a look of sympathy that she didn’t want. “Jade—”
“No, never mind.” Standing, she nudged him clear of her area. “Okay, out you. I have to close up.”
He managed to grab a handful of candy before she pushed him away. When she was alone, she looked at Gertie. “Men are annoying.”
Gertie cocked her head in agreement, but Jade let out a low laugh. “Oh, who are you trying to kid? The minute he shows his face, you’ll drop everything for him. Face it, Gert. You’re a Dell ’ho.”
Gertie grinned and drooled.
Jade sighed. She was a Dell ’ho, too. She finished closing up and got Beans into the carrier, surprised when she straightened to find Adam back in her space. “You didn’t have to wait for me. The bad guys have been caught.”
He shrugged. “Humor me.” He paused. “And about Dell. He—”
“You don’t have to explain him to me.” She pointed to a stack of phone messages from the day, which she’d already entered onto a spreadsheet and sent to Dell’s e-mail.
Adam picked up the messages and flipped through them. “Okay, Tina’s his housekeeper. Shelly’s a good friend of mine. She called me, too, wanting to know what to get the man of mystery for his birthday next month. I told her a kick in the ass. Amanda . . .” He lifted a shoulder and stared at that message. “Okay, that’s a new one,” he admitted, rubbing his jaw. “And probably not worth remembering.”
Jade sighed. “She’s a drug rep.”
“And you think Dell’s into her?”
“No,” she admitted. “He took her to lunch last week when she drove in from Boise, and since then she’s called twenty times, but he hasn’t gotten back to her.”
“And how many times has Melinda called?”
“Four, and there’s two hang-ups, which thanks to the magic of caller ID, are also hers.”
Adam just shook his head. “Christ, you two are a pair.”
Dell was slumped in his dining room chair as he gathered his cards in. He’d lost.
Fitting, he thought. Since he’d already lost her—a fact that had been slammed home to him last night. Only a few weeks ago, what had happened in the clinic last night would have paralyzed her with fear and insecurity. But the self-defense he’d taught her had bolstered her confidence and given her some belief in herself.
And now she was going to use that newfound strength to leave here.
Great job, Connelly. Well done.
Jade was smiling as she gathered all his nickels and dimes in close, making careful, perfect stacks.
“So you have what,” Lilah said to Jade. “A few weeks left?”
Jade didn’t look up from her winnings. “About.”
“Wish you wouldn’t go,” Lilah said. “We’re going to miss you.”
“You’re the only one who can keep the knucklehead in line,” Adam said in agreement.
The “knucklehead” didn’t speak because if he did, it would be to utter the two words that had been stuck in his throat for so long he was choking on them.
“This was always a temporary situation,” Jade reminded them softly. “But I’ll miss you guys.”
“Me too,” Lilah said, and pulled Jade in for a tight hug, the full-body kind that only women could pull off. “You’re leaving me here with all this testosterone, it’s not fair.”
“I’ll visit,” Jade said.
Lilah sniffed and nodded and then composed herself. Jade did the same. And just like that, it was over and the two of them were smiling again.
Not Dell. He couldn’t have smiled to save his life. His throat burned. Fucking burned.
Lilah filled the silence, talking about flying to Chicago to visit Jade and shop, flirting with her husband-to-be, making fun of Adam for losing when he wanted to win so bad.
Brady was just sitting there, clearly enjoying Lilah’s antics. Adam was quiet, probably calculating his revenge hand.
“Love how you always kick their asses,” Lilah said to Jade. “Promise me you’ll fly in for our poker nights once you go home. Brady can get you in the chopper.”
Brady nodded his agreement of that and Adam said something about how he’d have to start saving up for that since she kept killing him, but Dell couldn’t joke about it. Hell, he couldn’t hardly f**king breathe.
And how the hell she could, he had no idea.
Two weeks . . .
“My deal.” Jade took the cards, shuffling like a pro. “Five-card stud. Deuces wild.” She dealt, then surveyed her cards with that same little smile she always gave her hand.
She had a helluva poker face.
And if she’d looked like a naughty secretary yesterday, tonight she looked like a gambler’s wet dream. Snug, silky, long-sleeved T-shirt with an equally snug vest that tied up the center into a bow between her breasts.
He wanted to tug on that tie with his teeth.
Her jeans were cut low, and when she leaned forward to collect her winnings or to toss her cards, her shirt rose a little, revealing a mind-melting strip of smooth, creamy skin.
And just the very tiniest hint of twin dimples above the best ass he’d ever seen.
Christ, she was killing him.
He drew two cards and came up with three tens and a deuce. He went all in.
Brady shook his head and folded. “Sucker.”
Adam looked pained and also folded.
Lilah grinned but joined Adam and Brady in folding.
Jade pushed her money to the center of the table. She was in.
Dell looked into her eyes, and it might have been just the two of them—except for their audience, of course. The Three Stooges, watching them like a prime-time sitcom.
“You packing any heat?” Jade asked, studying his face.
“A little late to ask,” he said. “You’re all in.”
“In more ways than one,” she murmured. “Going to show me what you’ve got?”
In more ways than one? What did that mean? He revealed his cards. “Three of a kind.”