Lilah took a look at the small brown dog, though its color might have been due more to the dirt and mud that was stuck to its tangled and matted fur. His floppy ears nearly covered his sweet soulful eyes. He sneezed once, hard, and then the ears did cover his eyes. With a violent shake of his head, they fell back into place.
“It was sitting in front of my truck,” Brady said, frowning.
“It’s a dog,” Jade said.
Brady lifted the scrawny, clearly neglected dog up a little higher and inspected it. It licked his chin.
“Aw,” Jade said. “He likes you.”
Brady looked so horrified, Lilah laughed.
Brady turned his head and narrowed his razor-sharp blue eyes on her. Probably he wasn’t used to being a source of amusement. Probably, mostly women just lay down at his feet and begged him to take them.
Not that she was even close to doing that. No siree. She had some pride. She did all of her begging in private.
“It looks hungry and thirsty,” Brady said. “And maybe he has a cold, I don’t know. I thought I’d bring him inside, out of the sun.”
Oh. Oh, damn. He cared.
Either she made a sound or he sensed her softening because he thrust the dog at her. “Here. I think it needs to be checked out by Dell.”
The dog wore a midnight blue rhinestone encrusted collar, though most of the rhinestones were missing: TWINKLES.
“Cute,” she said, but didn’t take the dog. She couldn’t have said why. She automatically gravitated to all animals, especially lost, hurting ones, but there was something so innately sweet about seeing the little thing in Brady’s big, capable hands.
“Twinkles,” Brady said with disgust. “It should be illegal to name a dog that.”
“Twinkles is a perfectly fine name for a little girl dog.”
Brady shifted the dog, rolling it easily over in his big hands, revealing his distinct boy parts.
“Oh,” Lilah said. “Huh. Well, maybe he’s named after someone.”
“Not my problem. You’re the humane society.” He was still holding out the thing as if maybe the dog was a ticking time bomb. “So it’s your job to take him, right?” He looked to Jade for confirmation of this.
“Yes,” Jade said. “We do get abandoned animals dropped off here all the time. Since we’re the biggest animal center in this part of the state, we get a lot of business from the outlying areas, so who knows where he could have come from. If there’s no owner to call, we get them to Lilah here.”
“Hopefully he has an owner nearby.” But Lilah could tell by the look of the little guy that he’d been on his own for a while, and in her experience that meant there’d probably be no owner forthcoming. “I’ll put up flyers and get it on the website.”
Brady nodded, looking a little impatient that neither she nor Jade had relieved him of his burden. “Here,” he said again.
She couldn’t explain even to herself why she did it. Temporary insanity owing to a severe lack of sugar. That, or a case of severe unfulfilled and overworked hormones, she decided as she turned the sign-in sheet toward him. Because how many times had he kissed her now? Three.
She felt like she was going to self-combust. And she’d even self-combusted in the shower that morning. “Dell’s pretty busy today, but I’m sure Jade can squeeze you in to see him at some point. Does your dog need any vaccines?”
Brady scowled. “My dog? Is that supposed to be funny?”
Lilah smiled and stepped on Jade’s foot when the receptionist opened her mouth to speak. “As I said, I’m sure Jade can work Twinkles in, but there’s a bit of a wait at the moment.”
Brady stared at her for a long moment. She’d bet that there’d been many who’d cowered beneath that look. And she might have, except that the pathetic little creature quaking in his big hands, the one her heart was dying to grab and snuggle, was looking up at him like he was salvation.
She recently felt the same way.
“You’re the humane society,” Brady said a little tightly.
“I am. And you know where my kennel is, if you decide to abandon the animal.”
Brady glanced down at the dog’s miserable face and his own took on a pained expression. “I didn’t abandon it. Someone else did. Christ,” he muttered when she just looked at him serenely. “Is this about me telling your ex you rear-ended my truck?”
“Cruz?” Jade asked, surprised.
“Cruz?” Brady slid a look at Lilah. “I was talking about Nick. How many exes do you have?”
“None of your business.”
“Two,” Jade told him. “She doesn’t get out much since her grandma passed on.”
“Really?” Lilah said to her, heavy on the disbelief. “You’re going to go there?”
Jade lifted a shoulder. “Sorry. It’s been a long day.”
Brady gave Lilah a long look she couldn’t begin to interpret to save her own life before turning to Jade. “Book me for the last appointment of the day. I’ll be back.” He glanced down at the dog. “He looks like he’s healthy enough to make it until then.” Clearly frustrated with the lot of them, he made his way back toward the door to leave, the dog tucked against his chest.
The sexy cuteness, Lilah thought. Oh good Lord, the sexy cuteness . . .
Jade was brows up. “What was that?” she whispered.
“Don’t start. And why did you bring my grandma into it?”
“It slipped out. I’m telling you. I need a nap. But seriously, what was that, making him keep the stray? What are you up to?”
Lilah watched Brady stop just outside the door and stare down at the dog in his arms. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Really? Because forgive me if I’m wrong,” the receptionist said dryly, “but I was under the impression that you take in all the neglected, forgotten animals around here.”
Jade’s smile came slow and proud. “You wanted him to suffer. Nice. So what did he do to you exactly—besides kiss you into apparent insanity?”
Exactly? Lilah had no idea.
Except she did. She was horribly, devastatingly attracted to him, like moth to the flame attracted. Which technically wasn’t his fault, but she felt that if she had to suffer, then so did he. “Does there have to be a reason?”
“To make a guy suffer? Absolutely not,” Jade said with certainty.
That night Lilah was sitting at her table doing a balancing act with her bills when the knock came at her door.
“Mew,” Sadie said, all soft and warm and cozy in Lilah’s lap. The watchdog on the job.“Have to get up,” Lilah told her.
The cat dug her claws in just enough to have Lilah hissing in a breath, but before she could dislodge the cat, Adam let himself in. His big body filled up her kitchen as he dropped a large pizza box, a six-pack, and a bag on the table.
“Dinner,” he said. “A meat supreme special and, in case you’re feeling girlie, a salad.”
She stared at the food, torn by the rumbling in her belly and the sick feeling that he was babysitting her. “I told Dell I was busy.”
“Yeah, but I’m not the sucker he is.”
This was true. Nothing got by Adam. Which is what worried her. “He told you that I didn’t take the money.”
Not answering, he handed her a bottle of Corona before getting another for himself. Then he opened the pizza box.
They ate in silence for a while, silence being Adam’s favorite state of being. She tried going with that, but in the end she was just not in the mood. “So . . . you’re worried about me,” she said flatly.
Adam grabbed another slice of pizza.
“Let me guess—you lost the coin toss with Dell, which left you stuck with me. Only you don’t know how to tell me this because you’re a penis-carrying human and can’t figure out how to communicate with a mere vagina.”
He choked on a bite and reached for his beer.
She clapped him on his broad-as-a-mountain back, then ruffled his short, silky dark hair. “I’m okay, you know. Really.” She looked at the last piece of pizza. She didn’t need it. Problem was, it was calling her name.
“It’s got the same amount of calories if you eat it now or after agonizing over it for another two minutes,” Adam said.
Blowing out a breath, she snatched it before he could.
“And I didn’t lose the coin toss,” he said. “I won it. Loser had to talk to Brady.”
That caught her interest. She licked cheese off her thumb. “About?”
His silence was answer enough.
“Oh, for God’s sake!” she burst out. “Are you kidding me? Haven’t you done enough to my sex life?”
He choked again and spilled beer down the front of him. “Fuck,” he muttered, rising, then tripping over Sadie.
He scooped up the three-legged cat and held her to his wide chest in apology as he grabbed the paper towels. “Want to run that by me again?”
“Sure. You’re ruining my sex life!”
He carefully set Sadie back down. “I didn’t realize you had a sex life.”
“Exactly!” She rose, too, giving him, for good measure, a shove to the chest that didn’t budge him one single inch. “You hover like an overprotective mama bear, scaring all the guys away except for the ones I don’t want anymore. And I’m . . . Argh!” Turning away from him, she went to the sink and stared out into the night, gripping the edge of the tile so she didn’t smack him again.
“You’re lonely,” he said, sounding surprised.
“What, you think only guys need regular orgasms? And before you get all sanctimonious, I wanted Brady well before I knew he was your foster brother.”
In the reflection of the glass in front of her, she watched as he pressed his fingers to his eyes and grimaced. He drew a deep breath and pointed to the table. “Sit.”
“Why, because you asked so nicely?”
“Sit your ass down and I’ll tell you about Brady.”
She fought with her curiosity and lost. She sat.
Adam strode to the freezer, grabbed her always present ice cream, retrieved two spoons from a drawer, and sat next to her. “He was fifteen when we showed up at Sol’s. I was thirteen, Dell was twelve. None of us had ever had a steady home.”
She already knew this, about Dell and Adam at least. They were blood brothers. Their mother was Native American and lived on a reservation somewhere. She’d left only to give birth and had gone back to that world. Their father had taken the boys but then had died when they’d been young. Their mother, already moved on to another husband and family, had not wanted them back.
“Dell kept getting beat up at school,” Adam said, staring at the beer in his fingers. “I kept getting suspended for fighting—badly, by the way. I had no idea what I was doing. Brady scared the shit out of us. He was silent. And tough as nails.”
Lilah could imagine that without too much difficulty.
“Sol had a gym in his basement,” Adam went on. He ran a finger over the bottle. “One day Brady took us down there. We were pretty sure that he was going to kill us and no one would ever find the bodies, but instead he taught us how to protect ourselves.”
“He taught you how to fight?”
“Yeah. It took a good long while, too—we were pretty pathetic. About a month into this, we were out past curfew. I can’t remember why. And a group of, I don’t know, maybe five or six kids tried to jump us.” He laughed softly but without much mirth. “Dell was feeling brave and swung the first punch. The guy ducked and Dell hit Brady by accident.”
Lilah gasped. “Oh no.”
“Brady had to fight the guys trying to jump us and keep Dell from hindering the process.”
“Well?” she demanded when he didn’t go on. “What happened?”
“We managed to come out on top but only because of Brady’s skill at hand to hand.”
“Did any of you get hurt?”
“Some. Not too badly.” He rubbed his jaw as if remembering the old aches.
“So that’s how you got so tough,” she said, going with a teasing tone to lighten the mood.
But Adam didn’t smile. Instead he hesitated. He never hesitated.
“Uh-oh,” she said. “Is this where you tell me the three of you launched into a life of crime?”
“No, I was already well into my criminal career by then, all on my own.” He rubbed a hand over his eyes, looking weary. “I already had two arrests for underage drinking and then I got caught trying to steal a car.”
He shook the sympathy off. I was young and stupid and angry. Brady helped steer me through the aftermath of that disaster on the condition that I straighten my shit out or he’d straighten me out himself. Painfully.”
Lilah felt her heart turn over in its chest. “He cared about you, like a brother.”
“At the time it felt more like a prison warden, but yeah. The point is, he always came through for us when we needed him.”
“And you want to come through for him now?”
“Yeah. This land is one third his. And it’s good to have him here.”
“Where he’s safe,” she guessed. “For those few years he kept you safe, and you’d like to return the favor. Look at you trying to save us all.”
He grimaced. “Jesus, don’t make me out like a saint.”