“Goddammit,” he said quietly. “Tell me you’re still on track to be here by November first as promised. And if you say you need more time, I’m coming out there to drag you back here myself.”

“I’m on track.”

“Good,” he said. “Because your town house misses you.”

“My town house misses me?”

“Yeah. And the office misses you.”

“Now that I believe,” she said, thinking if all that missed her in Chicago was inanimate objects, why go back?

“Things are going downhill, Jade. Sandy’s not on top of everything like you always were. We’re suffering without you.”

Guilt washed over her. “That can’t be true.”

“Believe it. I hate to ask anything of you, but . . .”

“But you’re going to, anyway?” Jade asked dryly.

“Can you call in and talk to Sandy? She came from running just the Urgent Care, she’s not used to this. She’s got some computer problems and—”

“Sam, Sandy’s good. She knows what to do.” Jade had made sure of it.

“Yes but she’s not you. The office management has gone to hell. We’re losing patients, babe. People are tired of the long wait at the front desk. Phone calls are getting routed to our service in the middle of the day. We’re losing out on business.”

“You’re not—”

Sam laughed mirthlessly. “It’s a ‘we,’ Jade. We’re a ‘we,’ in business and in family. In everything.”

She pinched the bridge of her nose. “I’m working on it, Sam.”

“I know.”

The worry in his voice made her want to try to reassure him. She’d spent most of her life being the center of the family, the go-to girl. When she’d bailed from Chicago, she’d left a lot more than the city behind. “I keep thinking I’m working my way back to myself,” she admitted. “But the truth is I’m not. I don’t think I’m who I thought I was.”

“You’re still our Jade,” he said firmly. “You are.”

She wished she was as sure.

Sam blew out a breath. “Listen, don’t worry about us right now. Tell me what’s going on with you. I woke up with this need to talk to you and there’s something in your voice.”

“It’s nothing. I just had a little setback, that’s all.”

“Flashbacks? Nightmares?”


“Fuck, I hate this. I’m caught between that stupid promise I never should have made and—”

“Not a stupid promise,” she interrupted. “I’m going to be okay, Sam. Really.”

“You’ve been saying that for eighteen months.” His voice softened. “Everyone got counseling but you.”

“I wasn’t hurt.”

“Bullshit, you weren’t. Now get your ass back here so we can take care of you. We have the best of the best, and you know it. Come home now.”

There were built-in stakes to that plan, of course. Her parents. Sam. A business she’d been born to run. A town house she’d bought and loved . . . It was hard to say no.

It’d always been hard to say no. She hadn’t been bred for the no. She’d been a pleaser. And that deep-seated instilled need she had to make people happy had nearly killed her. She glanced around her at the animal center that she’d made her life for now.

For now . . .

A temporary haven, that’s all she’d expected it to be. But Sunshine had opened its arms for her, taken her in, given her refuge. She’d made connections here, deep ones. And through those connections she’d discovered a different side of herself. A side that believed no was a full sentence. A side that was beginning to have her own hopes and dreams, not the ones she’d been born into.

Her eyes locked onto a pair of warm, curious brown ones.


“I’ll be there by the first, as promised.”


“Bye, Sam.” She closed her phone.

“Problem?” Dell asked.

“Yes, but not yours.” She paused, then felt compelled by the sheer force of his personality to say more. “My old job.”

He arched a brow. “You didn’t list any past jobs on your app.”

No, she hadn’t.

“You going back to that same job when you go home?”


He nodded and she paused, trying to decide how best to handle this. “I didn’t list the job on my résumé because I didn’t have any vet experience.”

“But you have office experience,” he said softly. “Big office experience. You were more than a receptionist.”


“What were you, Jade?”

The gig was up a long time ago, she reminded herself. “Chief operating officer of a medical center. It’s really just a fancy title for office manager and full-charge bookkeeper.” She braced herself for the questions. Like why was she a thousand miles from home working a job she was obviously way overqualified for? And why had she given up that job in the first place, and did it have anything to do with whatever the hell had given her a near mental breakdown in the parking lot the night before?

But Dell didn’t ask her any of those questions. He didn’t ask her anything. He merely nodded and slid his hands into his pockets. Totally at ease.

“I should have told you,” she said.

“You didn’t have to.” He walked back into her work space, Gertie so close on his heels that when Dell stopped, the dog bumped into him.

Gertie slid Dell a reproachful look.

Dell ruffled the top of her head, and Gertie’s expression softened with unconditional love. “Down, Gert.”

“Down, Gert,” Peanut said, and Gertie plopped to the floor, the ground shaking under her graceless descent.

“I like hearing about you, Jade,” Dell said. “I’d like to hear more.”

“Trust me, you don’t.”

He gave her a small smile. “Not for you to decide, is it?” He leaned over her and reached for her keyboard, logging her in with his pass code.

That was new.

At her look of surprise, he said, “For the billing.” He paused. “Unless you’re leaving.”

“Not yet.”

He held her gaze until Keith walked through the reception area and unlocked the front door. Then he came up to the counter for the first patient file. “Dudes,” he said. “We ready?”

Dell didn’t break eye contact with Jade. “I am. You?” he asked Jade quietly.

They weren’t talking about work and she knew it. Was she ready? Hell, no. Not for anything but she’d long ago learned that to fake it was to make it. So she nodded.

Dell smiled at her in approval before turning to head to the back, stopping to greet a Newfoundland who’d just come inside with his owner. Dell laughed at something the man said, and the sound scraped at something low in Jade’s belly as she let out a careful breath. One more thing she wasn’t equipped to deal with at the moment.

Completely unconcerned with that fact, Dell vanished into the back, his shoulders square, that long-legged stride confident and sure.

Jade had grown up with confident men. Highly educated men. Sophisticated and elegant. Polished.

Dell was highly educated. He had to be in order to become a vet. But he wasn’t sophisticated and elegant, or polished. He’d as soon be on the floor helping a dog give birth than in a boardroom.

It was one of the most attractive things about him, how much he cared about his work. He had hundreds of patients and just about every single one of them was owned by a client completely and totally devoted to providing their animal the best care available. Dell was the best, and he was beloved in these parts.

Jade hadn’t had pets while growing up. Her mother was allergic, and after Jade had been out on her own she’d just never thought of it. It’d been quite the learning curve when she’d first come to Belle Haven. Dell was fairly closed off emotionally with people, but he seemed to be able to access whatever an animal needed. An injured dog, a sick kitten, a horse in labor, it didn’t matter . . . Dell gave his heart and soul, and in less time than it took humans to shake hands, an animal would become part of Dell’s pack for life. But for as many animals in his pack, Dell’s human pack was much smaller.

But he’d included Jade in that pack . . . which she’d resisted.

The room was filling up and Keith hadn’t come back for the next patient to fill the other waiting room. With a sigh, Jade grabbed the file and stood. Typically, the morning brought in the clients and the animals that were the most sick or had become endangered overnight. These early appointments often began with Dell walking into the exam room to face worried and stressed-out people and animals.

He was good at assuaging fears.

He’d be good at assuaging yours . . .

“Sergio,” she called, and managed a smile for Sergio’s owner, Leanne Whitfield. Leanne could have been a Beverly Hills housewife, except she didn’t have a husband and she lived here in Sunshine. What she did have was a shortterm plan to rectify the lack of husband pronto. She wanted to marry the most eligible man in town, and she’d decided that man was Dell.

To that end, Leanne brought in her kitten every few weeks, manufacturing odd illnesses. Leanne had somehow concluded that Jade was the biggest threat to her marry-Dell goal, which could be construed as amusing given that Dell was a serial dater and Jade was a serial social hermit these days.

As for Dell’s opinion on the situation, he and Jade had an understanding. Jade’s job included making sure Leanne never trapped Dell alone in an exam room, where she’d “accidentally” grope him. “What’s the problem with Sergio this morning?” Jade asked, pen poised over the chart.

“I’d rather go over this just once,” Leanne said, and flashed a smile that said, Bite me. “I’ll just tell the doctor myself directly.”

Jade smiled a Bite me right back at Leanne. “Sure. I’ll just go tell him so. He’s running a few minutes behind.”

“Oh?” Leanne didn’t look happy. “He have a late night last night?”

“Here you go,” Jade said, ignoring the question as she showed her into exam room two.

“When we get married,” Leanne said, “your services won’t be necessary.”


“It’s only a matter of time before he realizes how perfect we are together,” Leanne said, eyeballing herself in the small mirror over the sink. She adjusted her boobs higher and her neckline lower. “We’ll honeymoon in Cabo.”

Okay, Jade wasn’t in the mood for this. “Listen, it’s not going to happen.”


Yeah, Jade, why? She thought about being brutally honest and telling Leanne that she managed to do what no one else could do—she terrified the big, bad Dell Connelly, but sometimes honesty just wasn’t the way to go. “Because we’re engaged.” The lie rolled right off her tongue so easily she couldn’t even believe she’d said it.

Leanne’s sharp gaze flashed immediately to Jade’s ringless engagement finger.

“Getting it sized.” Jade left the room, hung the chart for Dell, and practically ran down the hall, nearly plowing right into him.

He put his hands on her h*ps to steady her. “Oh no you don’t, you’re not deserting me with her. Let’s go.” He began to tug her back to the exam room.

“Um,” she said. “She won’t exactly be bothering you anymore.”

“What did you do?”

She patted his chest. His hard, warm chest. “A thing.”

“A thing? What thing?”

“Yeah, we don’t have to talk about the thing,” she said, relieved when the phone started to ring.

He caught her arm. “We’ll talk about the thing later.”

“Sure.” Or never. And because just his hand on her was stirring up sensations best not stirred up, she backed away and returned to her work.


Dell was in the main surgery area cleaning up sometime later when Adam came through after a training session. “I’ve got the Moorelands in room two,” Dell told him. “Want to come in with me?”

The Moorelands were clients of Adam’s. They’d brought in their seven-week-old Labrador puppies.

“First exam?”

“And vaccinations. Eight puppies. You can help.”

“Maybe you’d rather have someone else. Say, your fiancée.”

“How many times do I have to tell you, crack kills brain cells.”

Adam flashed a rare grin. “Didn’t you wonder why Leanne didn’t play grab-ass with you this morning? It was because your receptionist turned herself into your fiancée.” Adam slapped him on the back. “Congrats, by the way. I didn’t think you had it in you.”

“Shut up. You’re making this shit up.”

“Are you kidding?” Adam asked. “No one could make this up. It’s too good. The question is, though . . . why would Jade come up with such a story? Unless something’s happened between you . . .”

Dell didn’t respond to that. Didn’t know how to respond to that.

Adam gave a shocked Dell a push down the hall and into exam room one.

Eight puppies were crawling over everything, making soft, snuffling puppy noises. Their owners, Joey and Donna Mooreland, a couple in their midfifties were sitting, supervising the best that they could with four hands against thirty-two little paws.