“You get over yourself.”
Adam snorted. “That the best you’ve got? Why don’t you just go after her, dumbass?”
“Thursday is her last day.”
Adam rubbed a hand over his jaw. “Well, damned if that didn’t sneak up on us.”
Dell looked down the road where Jade’s car had vanished. “Yeah.”
That night on the drive home from work, Jade quickly realized the weather had taken a left turn directly into winter. She hadn’t turned the heat on high enough and the loft had a chill when she entered. She fed Beans and went directly to her laptop and her things-to-do-when-upset list.
She combined all three, stripping and sliding into the water.
Beans sat on the mat, well out of the reach of any possible stray water drops, cleaning behind her ears.
Jade was halfway through the ice cream when her cell phone rang.
Jade set her bowl on the edge of the tub and gingerly leaned over to the sink counter where her phone sat. It was Lilah. “Hey,” she said. “I’m in the bath so—”
Jade eyed the phone warily. “Why?”
Jade sighed. “Dell or Adam called and asked you to check up on me.”
There was a guilty pause followed by a guilty laugh. “I know you said no good-bye party, but how about we go out for a drink?”
“Already there,” Jade said. She’d added a glass of wine to her pity party and it was nearly gone. Someone knocked at her door and she went still. “Wait—are you here?”
“No, but I can be.”
“Lilah, I’m fine.” She stood in the tub and accidentally splashed Beans, who sent her a reproachful look. “Which of them called you, Lilah?”
“Oh God. Don’t make me tell you that.”
“I just want to know who’s knocking at my door at”—she looked at her watch, also on the counter—“ten o’ clock at night.”
“Honey, you don’t need me to tell you who’s on your doorstep.”
Jade’s stomach clenched. Too much ice cream. “It could be Adam.”
Lilah laughed. “And the Tooth Fairy is coming by later, too. Look, we both know who’s at the door. Answer it. Talk to him. He’s worried about you.”
“I’m in the bath.”
“Well, that is my usual preference for bathing.”
“One of us has to see you tonight, Jade,” Lilah said. “It might as well be the one of us who’s falling in love with you.”
Jade went still, then jerked at the second knock on her front door. More water splashed over the sides of the tub and Beans trotted out of the room in self-defense this time.
“Jade?” Lilah asked. “You still there?”
“Dell’s not falling for anyone, Lilah. He’s a serial dater and doesn’t believe in relationships.”
“He hasn’t had a real date in months. And don’t look now, but he’s got plenty of relationships in his life. Adam, Brady, me, his mother—though he’d deny that to his dying day, the stubborn ass—and . . . you.”
There was a third knock, not nearly as patient as the first two. “Dammit, I gotta go. I’ll deal with you later.” Still dripping wet, she wrapped herself up in her bathrobe and gave herself the quick once-over in the mirror. No makeup, hair a mess—hell, who was she kidding? Her entire being was a mess. With a sigh, she moved through the loft to the door. Maybe he’d left, maybe . . .
“Jade, open up.”
“I’m fine. I told you I was fine.”
“Okay. Great. I’m not.”
Letting out a breath, she undid the security chain, unbolted the door, then pulled it open.
Dell’s hands were braced high on the doorjamb. His head was bowed, and when he lifted it, his eyes trailed up from her bare feet and legs to the robe that clung to her, heating her skin inch by slow inch. By the time his gaze met hers, his eyes were dark, filled with an emotion somewhere between possession, protection, and lust. “Invite me in, Jade.”
He wasn’t even going to try to sweet-talk his way in. He wanted her to invite him.
And that wasn’t all he wanted. He wanted some answers, too. She knew this. Just as she knew she hadn’t been able to give anyone those answers in all this time. But maybe . . . maybe that was the problem. God knew, keeping it in wasn’t working for her.
Maybe it was time to try something new.
So she drew in some air and stepped back. He didn’t move, just stayed in that position, arms up, eyes stark, expression bare.
“I want you to come in,” she said.
He dropped his arms and ignored the space she’d made, stepping into her, pushing them both into her place and shutting the door behind him.
Dell followed Jade into her kitchen, trying like hell not to notice that her white fluffy robe was sticking to her obviously wet body. Water dripped from her hair and her legs, and her feet squeaked on the tile floor. He was here for a reason, but that reason was fuzzy now that he had her in sight, all dewy fresh, no makeup, smelling like some complicated mix of sweet, sexy woman. “Jade.”
She turned back with a bottle of wine, which she poured into a glass before handing over to him.
“I’ve already had mine,” she said. “You might want to catch up.”
She didn’t look completely toasted so he tossed back some wine.
“You want to talk,” she said.
Actually, he wanted to strip off that robe and lift her up to the counter so he could have his merry way with her. But first things first. “I want you to talk.”
“Come on now, Jade. This has gone on too long. It’s time.”
She played with the tie of her robe a moment before lifting her gaze to his. “As you know, before I came here, I ran a large medical center.” She paused. “One night we were held up in the Urgent Care for drugs. I was the one who let the intruders into the lockup to get those drugs.”
Dell set down his wine, thinking he probably needed something stronger for this, much stronger.
“The following week,” she went on, “against my family’s and doctor’s wishes, I got into my car and drove west for a few days and ended up in Sunshine.”
Dell took a careful breath but otherwise didn’t react. He didn’t want her to stop talking. “Doctor?”
“I needed something to eat,” she said. “So I went into the bakery on Main and heard the woman behind the counter talking to another woman about Belle Haven. It was Lilah, and she was saying how the animal center needed a receptionist to man the desk and answer the phones because your old receptionist had left to have a baby and you guys were trying to do it on your own. I didn’t need a job, but I needed a job, you know?”
No. No he didn’t know. “Jade, the robbery. Previously, you’d said you were attacked. How badly were you—”
“After Lilah paid and left, I asked the lady behind the counter how to find the animal center. And then I drove out there. Got lost twice. Adam found me in the middle of the road trying to get my GPS to work, and he led me to Belle Haven. You were sitting in the middle of the waiting room floor wearing scrubs and a doctor’s coat, playing with Mrs. Nelson’s eight-week-old pug puppies. They were climbing all over you, and the phone was ringing and your computer was frozen, and you were just sitting there, calm as can be. Laughing. You were laughing at the puppy trying to climb up your chest to lick your face.”
Dell remembered that. Adam had opened the door for her and she’d walked in, eyes hidden behind her big mirrored sunglasses, wearing white jeans and an aneurysm-inducing pink fuzzy sweater that somehow went with her red hair, looking as if she’d walked off a movie set.
He’d been a little dazzled.
And more than a little head over heels in lust.
But then she’d dropped to her knees and had loved up one of the puppies, letting it crawl all over her fancy clothes, not caring about hair or slobber.
She’d wanted to sit behind his desk and answer his phones, and he’d had to change gears because he’d needed someone to do those things. He’d conducted a real interview, and they’d hit their first problem—in spite of the intelligence and wit blaring from those green eyes, she couldn’t provide references. Or proof she could indeed handle the job.
He’d known she wasn’t from Sunshine, or anywhere close. That was obvious. Everything about her, from her clothes to her speech to her mannerisms, spoke of a big city and big money.
“Belle Haven was so . . .” Jade searched for the words. “Warm. Open. Inviting. Not at all like the uptight medical center I’d come from. There was no tension, no angry, sick, frustrated people waiting for hours, no harried office staff fighting insurance companies for approval. Just you. And you looked so easygoing,” she said softly. “So . . . laid-back. Fun. I wanted to work for you.”
“So you did,” he said. “And it’s been great. But Jade, you’ve got to tell me. Tell me what happened to you.”
“It was late.” She let out a long breath. “I’d stayed because it was month’s end and the accounts payable and receivable clerks had gotten behind, not sending me their reports until the very end of the day. We were closed and I was just leaving, walking through the parking lot when someone ran at me. It looked like a teenager in a hoodie, so I stopped. I thought he was hurt, but”—here she squeezed her eyes shut—“he lifted his head and straightened. He wasn’t a teen. He was a full-grown man, wearing a Halloween mask.”
Dell heard the sound escape him, a low murmur of regret and horror for her, remembering how she’d fallen apart in the parking lot at Belle Haven when she’d faced yet another Halloween mask.
“Before I could react,” she went on, “he’d shoved me and I fell to the asphalt. And then . . .” She cut herself off and shook her head.
“Jade.” Dell pulled her close and wrapped her arms around him. “Stay with me.”
“I am.” But she burrowed in, pressing her face into his neck. “He had a gun. He pulled me up and yanked me close, holding his arm over my windpipe so I couldn’t breathe. I could feel blood running down from hands and knees where I’d gotten scraped, and he kept tightening his grip and . . . and I couldn’t breathe.”
With another low sound of empathy and fury mixed, Dell pulled her in even tighter, as if he could fight her eighteen-month-old demons for her.
“He made me unlock the front door and dragged me through the reception area, demanding to know where the meds were kept. He wanted OxyContin, Vicodin, morphine, whatever we had. He needed a fix, he was shaking bad. I should have—I should have . . .”
“You did what you had to,” Dell said, stroking a hand up and down her back to remind her that she was here, safe. “And you survived.” Her robe and body were damp, and she was trembling. He tried to wrap himself around her to give her his body heat. “That’s all that matters now.”
Face still pressed to his throat, she shook her head. “That’s just it, I didn’t do all I could. I did nothing.”
“No, it’s true. When I was on the ground, I could have kicked at him standing over me. I could have tried to fight back and I didn’t.”
“He had a f**king gun,” Dell said, hating that she’d ever felt so helpless. “You didn’t have the tools to fight back. It wasn’t your fault.”
“But what happened next was.” She gulped in more air. “I wouldn’t tell him where the meds were, so he dragged me through to the back. Karen was still there, one of our nurses. She was working late, too, cleaning up. She came out of the small kitchen area and he—”
Dell was already hating this story. Hating it with everything he had. “He what, Jade?”
“He pointed the gun at her and said if I didn’t tell him where the meds were, he’d shoot her.”
Dell closed his eyes and rested his cheek on the top of her head, wishing he could take it all away.
“I told him,” Jade said. “I told him what he wanted to know, but he hit her, anyway, in the face with his gun. He made me tie her up to a chair and then dragged me down the hall. I fell and nearly took him down with me, which really pissed him off. He kicked me in the ribs and I couldn’t breathe again. I still couldn’t breathe when we got to lockup. Corey was in the room, we surprised him.”
“A lab tech. He was studying for his exams. We startled him. When he saw me, all the blood startled him. I looked much worse than I was.”
“Jade.” Dell could barely speak. “God, Jade.”
“Corey jumped up and . . .” She tightened her grip on him, both hands at his chest, grabbing his shirt and a few chest hairs to boot. “He shot him,” she whispered. “In the thigh. I screamed, and he shoved me up against the meds lockup and demanded the key or he was going to shoot Corey again. But the key wasn’t on my ring, I didn’t have it there because it’s too dangerous. But when I refused to get it, he—”
God, he didn’t want to hear this. “Jade.”
“He touched me. With his gun. He rubbed it over my breast and when my nipple got hard, he laughed and said we were going to have fun after. Corey yelled at him from the floor where he was bleeding like crazy, told him to leave me alone, and I could hear Karen screaming for help from the kitchen . . . and you know what I did?”