Brady Miller’s ideal Saturday was pretty simple—sleep in, be woken by a hot, na**d woman for sex, followed by a breakfast that he didn’t have to cook.
On this particularly early June Saturday, he consoled himself with one out of the three, stopping at 7-Eleven for coffee, two egg and sausage breakfast wraps, and a Snickers bar.Breakfast of champions.
Heading to the counter to check out, he nodded to the convenience store clerk.
She had her Bluetooth in her ear, presumably connected to the cell phone glowing in her pocket as she rang him up. “He can’t help it, Kim,” she was saying. “He’s a guy.” At this, she sent Brady a half-apologetic, half-commiserating smile. She was twentysomething, wearing spray-painted-on skinny jeans, a white wife-beater tank top revealing black lacy bra straps, and so much mascara that Brady had no idea how she kept her eyes open.
“You know what they say,” she went on as she scanned his items. “A guy thinks about sex once every eight seconds. No, it’s true, I read it in Cosmo. Uh-huh, hang on.” She glanced at Brady, pursing her glossy lips. “Hey, cutie, you’re a guy.”
“Last I checked.”
She popped her gum and grinned at him. “Would you say you think about sex every eight seconds?”
“Nah.” Every ten, tops. He fished through his pocket for cash.
“My customer says no,” she said into her phone, sounding disappointed. “But Cosmo said a man might deny it out of self-preservation. And in any case, how can you trust a guy who has sex on the brain 24/7?”
Brady nodded to the truth of that statement and accepted his change. Gathering his breakfast, he stepped outside where he was hit by the morning fresh air of the rugged, majestic Idaho Bitterroot mountain range. Quite a change from the stifling airlessness of the Middle East or the bitter desolation and frigid temps of Afghanistan. But being back on friendly soil was new enough that his eyes still automatically swept his immediate surroundings.
Always a soldier, his last girlfriend had complained.
And that was probably true. It was who he was, the discipline and carefulness deeply engrained, and he didn’t see that changing anytime soon. Noting nothing that required his immediate attention, he went back to mainlining his caffeine. Sighing in sheer pleasure, he took a big bite of the first breakfast wrap, then hissed out a sharp breath because damn. Hot. This didn’t slow him down much. He was so hungry his legs felt hollow. In spite of the threat of scalding his tongue to the roof of his mouth, he sucked down nearly the entire thing before he began to relax.
Traffic was nonexistent, but Sunshine, Idaho, wasn’t exactly hopping. It’d been a damn long time since he’d been here, years in fact. And longer still since he’d wanted to be here. He took another drag of fresh air. Hard to believe, but he’d actually missed the good old US of A. He’d missed the sports. He’d missed the women. He’d missed the price of gas. He’d missed free will.
But mostly he’d missed the food. He tossed the wrapper from the first breakfast wrap into a trash bin and started in on his second, feeling almost . . . content. Yeah, damn it was good to be back, even if he was only here temporarily, as a favor. Hell, anything without third-world starvation, terrorists, or snipers and bombs would be a five-star vacation.
“Look out, incoming!”
At the warning, Brady deftly stepped out of the path of the bike barreling down at him.
“Sorry!” the kid yelled back.
Up until yesterday, a shout like that would have meant dropping to the ground, covering his head, and hoping for the best. Since there were no enemy insurgents, Brady merely raised the hand still gripping his coffee in a friendly salute. “No problem.”
But the kid was already long gone, and Brady shook his head. The quiet was amazing, and he took in the oak tree- lined sidewalks, the clean and neat little shops, galleries and cafés—all designed to bring in some tourist money to subsidize the mining and ranching community. For someone who’d spent so much time in places where grime and suffering trumped hope and joy, it felt a little bit like landing in the Twilight Zone.
“Easy now, Duchess.”
At the soft, feminine voice, Brady turned and looked into the eyes of a woman walking a . . . hell, he had no idea. The thing pranced around like it had a stick up its ass.
Okay, a dog. He was pretty sure.
The woman smiled at Brady. “Hello, how are you?”
“Fine, thanks,” he responded automatically, but she hadn’t slowed her pace.
Just being polite, he thought, and tried to remember the concept. Culture shock, he decided. He was suffering from a hell of a culture shock. Probably he should have given himself some time to adjust before doing this, before coming here of all places, but it was too late now.
Besides, he’d put it off long enough. He’d been asked to come, multiple times over the years. He’d employed every tactic at his disposal: avoiding, evading, ignoring, but nothing worked with the two people on the planet more stubborn than him.
Not blood brothers, but that didn’t appear to matter to Dell or Adam. The three of them had been in the same foster home for two years about a million years ago. Twenty-four months. A blink of an eye really. But to Dell and Adam, it’d been enough to bond the three of them for life.
Brady stuffed in another bite of his second breakfast wrap, added coffee, and squinted in the bright June sunshine. Jerking his chin down, the sunglasses on top of his head obligingly slipped to his nose.
He headed to his truck parked at the corner but stopped short just in time to watch a woman in an old Jeep rear-end it.
“Crap. Crap.” Lilah Young stared at the truck she’d Just rear-ended and gave herself exactly two seconds to have a pity party. This is what her life had come to. She had to work in increments of seconds.
A wet, warm tongue laved her hand and she looked over at the three wriggling little bodies in the box on the passenger’s seat of her Jeep.Two puppies and a potbellied pig.
As the co-owner of the sole kennel in town, she was babysitting Mrs. Swanson’s “babies” again today, which included pickup and drop-off services. This was in part because Mrs. Swanson was married to the doctor who’d delivered Lilah twenty-eight years ago, but also because Mrs. Swanson was the mother of Lilah’s favorite ex-boyfriend.
Not that Lilah had a lot of exes. Only two.
Okay, three. But one of them didn’t count, the one who after four years she still hoped all of his good parts shriveled up and fell off. And he’d had good parts, too, damn him. She’d read somewhere that every woman got a freebie stupid mistake when it came to men. She liked that. She only wished it applied to everything in life.
Because driving with Mrs. Swanson’s babies and—
“Quack-quack!” said the mallard duck loose in the backseat.
—A mallard duck loose in the backseat had been a doozey of a mistake.
Resisting the urge to thunk her head against the steering wheel, Lilah hopped out of the Jeep to check the damage she’d caused to the truck, eyes squinted because everyone knew that helped.
The truck’s bumper sported a sizable dent and crack, but thanks to the tow hitch, there was no real obvious frame damage. The realization brought a rush of relief so great her knees wobbled.
That is until she caught sight of the front of her Jeep. It was so ancient that it was hard to tell if it had ever really been red once upon a time or if it was just one big friggin’ rust bucket, but that no longer seemed important given that her front end was mashed up.
“Quack-quack.” In the backseat, Abigail was flapping her wings, getting enough lift to stick her head out the window.
Lilah put her hand on the duck’s face and gently pressed her back inside. “Stay.”
“Stay.” Wanting to make sure the Jeep would start before she began the task of either looking for the truck’s owner or leaving a note, Lilah hopped behind the wheel. She never should have turned off the engine because her starter had been trying to die for several weeks now. She’d be lucky to get it running again. Beside her, the puppies and piglet were wriggling like crazy, whimpering and panting as they scrambled to stand on each other, trying to escape their box. She took a minute to pat them all, soothing them, and then with her sole thought being Please start, she turned the ignition key.
And got only an ominous click.
“Come on, baby,” she coaxed, trying again. “There’s no New Transportation budget, so please come on . . . ”
“Pretty sure you killed it.”
With a gasp, she turned her head. A man stood there. Tall, broad-shouldered, with dark brown hair that was cut short and slightly spiky, like maybe he hadn’t bothered to do much with it after his last shower except run his fingers through it. His clothes were simple: cargoes and a plain shirt, both emphasizing a leanly muscled body so completely devoid of body fat that it would have made any woman sigh—if she hadn’t just rear-ended a truck.
Probably his truck.
Having clearly just come out of the convenience store, he held a large coffee and what smelled deliriously, deliciously like an egg and sausage and cheese breakfast wrap.
Be still, her hungry heart . . .
“Hush, Abigail,” Lilah murmured, flicking the duck a glance in the rearview mirror before turning back to the man.
His eyes were hidden behind reflective sunglasses, but she had no doubt they were on her. She could feel them, sharp and assessing. Everything about his carriage said military or cop. She wasn’t sure if that was good or bad. He was a stranger to her, and there weren’t that many of them in Sunshine. Or anywhere in Idaho for that matter. “Your truck?” she asked, fingers crossed that he’d say no.
“Yep.” He popped the last of the breakfast wrap in his mouth and calmly tossed the wrapper into the trash can a good ten feet away. Chewing thoughtfully, he swallowed and then sucked down some coffee.
Just the scent of it had her sighing in jealousy. Probably, she shouldn’t have skipped breakfast. And just as probably, she’d give a body part up for that coffee. Hell, she’d give up two for the candy bar sticking out of his shirt pocket. Just thinking about it had her stomach rumbling loud as thunder. She looked upward to see if she could blame the sound on an impending storm, but for the first time in two weeks there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. “I’m sorry,” she said. “About this.”
He pushed the sunglasses to the top of his head, further disheveling his hair—not that he appeared to care.
“Luckily the damage seems to be mostly to my Jeep,” she went on.
Sharp blue eyes held hers. “Karma?”
“Actually, I don’t believe in karma.” Nope, she believed in making one’s own fate—which she’d done by once again studying too late into the night, not getting enough sleep, and . . . crashing into his truck.
“Hmm.” He sipped some more coffee, and she told herself that leaping out of the Jeep to snatch it from his hands would be bad form.
“How about felony hit-and-run?” he asked conversationally. “You believe in that?”
“I wasn’t running off.”
“Because you can’t,” he ever so helpfully pointed out. “The Jeep’s dead.”
“Yes, but . . . ” She broke off, realizing how it must look to him. He’d found her behind her own wheel, cursing her vehicle for not starting. He couldn’t know that she’d never just leave the scene of an accident. Most likely he’d taken one look at the panic surely all over her face and assumed the worst about her.
The panic doubled. And also, her pity party was back, and for a beat, she let the despair rise from her gut and block her throat, where it threatened to choke her. With a bone-deep weary sigh, she dropped her head to the steering wheel.
“Hey. Hey.” Suddenly he was at her side. “Did you hit your head?”
But before she could finish that sentence, he opened the Jeep door and crouched at her side, looking her over.
“I’m fine. Really,” she promised when he cupped and lifted her face to his, staring into her eyes, making her squirm like the babies in the box next to her.
“How many fingers am I holding up?” A quiet demand. His hand was big, the two fingers he held up long. His eyes were calmly intense, his mouth grim. He hadn’t shaved that morning she noted inanely, maybe not the day before either, but the scruff only made him seem all the more . . . male.
“Two,” she whispered.
Nodding, he dropped his gaze to run over her body. She had dressed for work this morning, which included cleaning out the kennels, so she wore a denim jacket over a T-shirt, baggy Carhartts, boots, and a knit cap to cover her hair.
To say she wasn’t looking ready for her close-up was the understatement of the year. “Do you think you can close the door before—”
Sensing a means of escape, Abigail started flapping her wings, attempting to fly out past Lilah’s face.
She nearly made it, too, but the man, still hunkered at Lilah’s side, caught the duck.
By the neck.
“Gak,” said a strangled Abigail.
“Don’t hurt her!” Lilah cried.
With what might have been a very small smile playing at the corners of his mouth, the man leaned past Lilah and settled the duck on the passenger floorboard.
“Stay,” he said in a low-pitched, authoritative voice that brooked no argument.
Lilah opened her mouth to tell him that ducks didn’t follow directions, but Abigail totally did. She not only stayed, she shut up. Probably afraid she’d be roasted duck if she didn’t. Staring at the brown-headed, orange-footed duck in shock, she said, “I really am sorry about your truck. I’ ll give you my number so I can pay for damages.”